Wednesday, June 7, 2006
Divorcing Pedro and Nomar
By Bill Simmons Page 2
I have very few rules in life, but here's one of them: Any time Pedro Martinez pitches against Derek Lowe, Nomar Garciaparra and Grady Little in a National League game taking place 3,000 miles from Boston, and the date of the game happens to be 6/6/6, I have to attend this game and write a column about it. Well, as long as the apocalypse doesn't coincide with the seventh-inning stretch.
How did we get here? Seriously, I'm asking you how the hell did we get here? We always hear words like "amazing" and "unbelievable" in sports -- no two words get beaten into the ground more, actually -- but this night was genuinely amazing and unbelievable. Pedro and the Mets taking on D-Lowe, Nomar, Grady and the Dodgers on 6/6/6? Could it have happened on any other date?
Consider the following things ...
"Sometimes, when I'm nervous I smell my hands like this."
1. As recently as five years ago, any local crazy enough to suggest that Nomar and Pedro would ever face each other on non-Boston teams would have been banned from WEEI, beaten up at Sully's Pub, thrown off the bleachers at Fenway or committed to a mental institution. They owned the town during 1998-2001; nobody else came close. Even now, ranking the greatest Boston athletes in terms of "how high their popularity climbed at their absolute apex," both guys easily crack the top 12 along with Orr, Bird, Williams, Havlicek, Cooz, Clemens, Yaz, Flutie, Brady and Big Papi. Now Pedro was facing Nomar in a freaking Mets-Dodgers game? What was next, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman reuniting for "Weekend at Bernie's 3?"
(Just five years ago in this space, I compared Nomar to Springsteen and Pedro to Hendrix, then explained their everyday impact on the Red Sox by writing, "It's like watching an episode of 'The Sopranos' without Tony involved -- maybe every plot doesn't have to revolve around Tony, but you still need him around. Together, Nomar and Pedro equal Tony; remove one of them and the Red Sox aren't the same show anymore." Little did we know.)
2. Out of all the traumatic Red Sox moments before Oct. 27, 2004 -- and there were many -- two stood out above everything else: The Game 6 collapse at Shea Stadium (1986) and the Game 7 collapse at Yankee Stadium (2003). Let's just say that (A) Pedro and Grady were prominently involved in one of them; (B) Grady ended up losing his job because of what happened; and (C) if the Red Sox hadn't won the World Series the following year, Grady probably would have been ordered to wear a bulletproof vest in the dugout for his current Dodgers gig to be safe from the Boston fans spread all over the country. I'm not sure what was more shocking -- the fact that someone hired Grady Little again, or the fact that he and Pedro were sharing the same baseball field again. On the Creepy/Improbable/Déjà Vu Scale, this was like President Bush crashing a book signing for the author of "My Pet Goat."
3. Lowe and Pedro started in Boston during the same season (1998; Lowe had made a few appearances in '97) and departed for free agency during the same winter (2004). During the Greatest Sports Comeback Of All Time (also known as the 2004 ALCS), Lowe started Games 4 and 7, Pedro started Game 5, and both of them won games in St. Louis to clinch the World Series. And both of them left Boston with legacies of sorts: Pedro as the modern-day Koufax, a once-in-a-generation starter who passed through town like a comet, the guy we never fully appreciated until he was gone; Lowe as the real-life Sam "Mayday" Malone, an affable, likable, irresponsible, roller-coaster ride of a pitcher who loved the nightlife and had a knack for coming up big when it mattered. We couldn't have won the title without either of them. Now they were settled into cushy roles as big money aces on National League contenders, renewing acquaintances on a balmy night in Chavez Ravine. Meanwhile, their old team was falling apart in Yankee Stadium on the other coast.
And that's what made Tuesday night so poignant, even for an apocalypse. Like so many other Sox fans, I never understood the wisdom of shaking up a championship team that succeeded because of its personality and chemistry over everything else. Every post-2004 move was defensible on the surface -- Pedro wanted too much money, Lowe needed a change of scenery, Roberts wanted a chance to play every day, Cabrera's OBP wasn't high enough, and so on -- but the overall point were obscured: namely, that some baseball teams succeed for reasons that transcend statistics. The 2004 Red Sox were talented, but more importantly, they were unflappable. They enjoyed playing together and they understood how to survive and prosper in a rabid baseball city like Boston. That's why they won the World Series. That and a nine-figure payroll.
The thing is, you never know how people will respond to Boston until they play there; just ask Byung-Hyun Kim, Matt Young, Jack Clark, Mike Torrez, Carl Everett, Matt Clement (Lowe's replacement who turned out to be a $24 million basket case) and, most famously, Edgar Renteria, an alleged $40 million upgrade from Cabrera until he couldn't get comfortable in Boston (just as everyone close to him predicted). For the future, here's a good rule of thumb for these situations: Any time you hear someone described as "introverted," "sensitive," "shy with the press" and/or "his own worst enemy," that's not someone who should be playing in Boston. Ever. Under any circumstances. Anyway, after the Sox paid Atlanta $10 million to take him off their hands, Renteria quickly regained his old form and seems destined to join Lowe and Pedro on the 2006 NL All-Star team. Well, unless I can get my Renteria voodoo doll working again.
(Which reminds me, if you're watching a Braves game and Edgar suddenly starts rolling around with his hands covering his eyes, almost like someone was shoving needles into his eyeballs, um, the previous paragraph was just a coincidence.)
Back to Pedro: I don't think the Red Sox should have matched New York's offer of $54 million over four years. That was absolute insanity. But if they made one mistake over the past three years, it was the way they handled Pedro's situation after their much-ballyhooed pursuit of Curt Schilling. How can you spend that much time, energy and money pursuing one star pitcher, sign him to a lucrative extension, include an incredible eight-figure bonus clause for winning the World Series ... and then tell your incumbent franchise pitcher, "Let's talk after next season when you're a free agent, maybe we can work something out." If you were Pedro, would you have taken the hometown discount to stay after that? Hell, no. If anything, you probably would have signed somewhere else and been extra-motivated to stick it to them.
Which is pretty much what happened. Maybe Pedro needed somebody to kick him in the ass, much like when the Red Sox lowballed Clemens and he proceeded to embrace the rehabilitative power of steroi-- ... er, weight training, get himself into phenomenal shape, cut down from five helpings per meal to one and roll off consecutive Cy Young seasons in Canada. And maybe the inferior quality of the National League plays a bigger role than we realize; we've seen too many NL guys switch leagues and flounder, and too many AL guys switch leagues and thrive, and if you don't believe me, look at Josh Beckett's home run stats over the past few years compared to 2006. And maybe I shouldn't even be complaining about this, because the Red Sox did win the World Series in 2004, and we're only in Year 2 of the Grace Period, and I should probably shut up and stare at my 12-DVD set from the 2004 playoffs again.
It's just that I can't.
"What can I say about that pitch Pedro gave me? Thanks, beautiful."
Pedro should have finished his career in Boston. I hate them for letting him go, I hate myself for rationalizing it when it happened -- if you remember, I was firmly entrenched in the "this is a guy who appears to have a mental block pitching against the Yankees, so maybe we don't need him" camp, which was so silly in retrospect -- and I hate the fact that Mets fans get to watch him every five days, that he belongs to them, that Pedro Martinez is going to retire a New York Met. No, I'm not going Champ Kind on you -- I'm not a mess without him, I don't miss his scent and I don't miss his musk. But Pedro should have finished his career in Boston. For what they eventually paid Clement and David Wells, the Red Sox could have locked up Pedro to an extension before the 2004 season. Instead, they took care of Schilling and inadvertently ended up pushing the greatest pitcher in franchise history out the door. These are the facts.
On the night of 6/6/6, I would have to settle for watching Pedro pitch for the Mets. Thanks to the hideous L.A. traffic, we didn't make it to our seats until the bottom of the second, missing the most dramatic moment of the game: Nomar's first-inning home run off Pedro, which probably would have caused my head to explode like a whitehead if I had witnessed it in person. Lowe gave the runs back in the second and the two ex-teammates settled down for an old-fashioned pitcher's duel -- in other words, the perfect game for laid-back Dodger Stadium, one of the few redeeming things about the L.A. sports scene.
After enough beers in this place, you have trouble remembering if it's 2006 or 1979. It's an old-school ballpark, creaky and sprawling, perfectly placed in the hills on the outskirts of the city, one of those Lambeau-like venues that can take your breath away on the right night. I always judge baseball stadiums on that moment after you enter the park, when you're walking by the concession stands toward your section, and then you find it, and then you're outside, and the light hits you, and suddenly there it is -- the whole ballpark, in all its glory -- and either you get a rush or you don't.
Fenway gives me a rush every time. I have seen it from every angle, in every possible situation, and it still does it for me. It's a piece of art, a Picasso painting of a stadium. For different reasons, Yankee Stadium gives me a similar feeling -- a sense that something important is about to happen, a sense of history, a sense of something. Same for Dodger Stadium. Glance into the right-field bleachers and you can almost imagine the Gibson homer landing there. Glance past the center-field scoreboard during sunset and you can see the green hills melting into the darker sky, with nothing surrounding the stadium for miles and miles, almost like the real-life "Field of Dreams." What a place to see a ball game. Everyone should go there once.
With Lowe and Pedro matching zeros in the middle innings and Carlos Beltran spicing things up with an incredible diving catch, the game had a chance to be special ... right until the Dodgers exploded in the sixth with a two-run homer from gigantic rookie Matt Kemp, a couple of dink singles and a killer error by Jose Valentin that knocked out Pedro. So much for the pitcher's duel. Lowe ended up going six strong innings for the win and didn't even consider breaking out the Derek Lowe Face for old time's sake. In the seventh, Grady Little strolled to the mound for a pitching change and I found myself disgustedly staring at him the entire time -- looking a little like Fred Goldman during any of O.J.'s entrances during the Simpson trial -- and that's when I realized that October 2004 would never totally erase what happened in October 2003. Some scars simply can't heal.
On the other hand, I didn't fully realize how happy I was for Nomar until Tuesday night, and not just because he's leading both leagues in hitting right now. Looking back, it was remarkably unfair how everything worked out starting in the winter of 2003 -- Boston's ill-fated pursuit of A-Rod; Nomar's conditional trade to the White Sox falling through, followed by his awkward return to Boston; those unhappy weeks before the Cubs trade, when Nomar was sulking and the fans turned on him; and the impossibly cruel twist when the Sox won a title without him. (Even Tuesday night, the Sports Gal noticed him sitting in the dugout and said, "I feel bad for him." When I asked why, she explained, "Because we won the World Series without him, we didn't need him." Then she went back to mauling a Dodger Dog.) For five solid years, nothing went right for Nomar, capped off by his signing with the Dodgers as a first baseman. I remember feeling chagrined when I heard the news, almost like hearing about an ex-girlfriend who was working at a strip joint to make ends meet.
But everything worked out for him -- so far, anyway. He's the most popular Dodger other than Gagne, their best hitter and one of the signature faces of the franchise. L.A. fans bring Nomar signs to games, chant his name, wear his No. 5 jersey, holler encouragement to him between innings. He means something to them. Just like he used to mean something to everyone in Boston. The most unfair outcome to the 2004 World Series wasn't that Nomar missed out on a ring -- after all, they couldn't have won a title with his defense at short -- but that so much happened over such a short time frame that season, we never had a chance to mourn the Nomar Era and everything it meant. He left for Chicago, the team took off, we won the World Series, and that was that. Thanks for the memories. That had to be one of the coldest sequences in the history of sports.
Boston was ready to rename every bridge and tunnel after these guys.
After his departure from Boston, I wrote a column comparing the finality of the trade to the finality of a divorce -- how the bitterness gives way to sadness and despair, how you end up losing hope, how you can't remember why you were ever together in the first place. And I think that analogy still stands. Just like in the years following a divorce when everything calms down, most of that animosity has washed away; I would like to believe that most Red Sox fans regard Nomar's recent good fortune the same way someone would feel happy for an ex-spouse. After all, there was something there, right? It's like the famous scene in the pilot episode of "Miami Vice" -- not the crappy movie that's about to be released, the actual TV show -- when Crockett and Tubbs are driving 700 mph as Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight" plays in the background, chasing after a drug dealer before he hops on a plane to the Bahamas. In the middle of this chaos, Crockett pulls over at a phone booth just to call his wife and ask her, "Caroline, what we had together it was real, wasn't it?"
Instead of saying something like, "What the hell are you talking about?" or "Oh, no, you've been drinking again," his ex-wife pauses for a second, purses her lips and simply says, "Yeah, you bet it was."
And Sonny hangs up and hops back in his Ferrari as Tubbs looks at him with one of those "Wait, what the hell just happened?" looks.
Now THAT was a great scene. And I feel like Red Sox fans are about to reach that moment with Nomar -- he's standing at that stupid tollbooth, all those memories are flooding back, and dammit, it was real. You bet it was. I can't be the only one following his box scores and hoping he keeps doing well, and I can't be the only Red Sox fan who would have enjoyed watching him jog to his dugout between innings, glove tucked to his side, lips pursed into a permanent semi-smile (just like the old days), soaking in the screams of "Nomar!" from everyone sitting behind his dugout. I felt almost as happy watching Lowe mow the Mets down, or watching Pedro wait by the dugout for Beltran after his superb catch and knowing from experience that the grateful slap-on-the-ass was coming, because that's the kind of stuff Pedro always remembers to do. I even enjoyed listening to a Dodger fan scream to nobody in particular, "Why didn't he take him out sooner?" as Grady pulled some dude named Braxton in the seventh inning. Yes, Grady Little is torturing another fan base. This makes me strangely happy.
As it turned out, Tuesday night's game wasn't the apocalypse, but more of a trip down memory lane. The one moment I couldn't quite reconcile was Nomar's homer off Pedro, which I ended up being happy I didn't see.
Nomar's homer off Pedro.
Those four words just shouldn't go together. Not even on a day like 6/6/6.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.